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Introduction

MSM, scientifically termed Methylsulfonylmethane, is a naturally occurring compound in humans.

This compound is consumed through foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beer, port wine, coffee, tea, and cow’s milk.

However, MSM is also a popular dietary supplement used to treat a wide range of conditions, mainly regarding joint pain, inflammation, and immune health.

Health Benefits

As MSM has the ability to act on a large range of cells throughout the body, it is difficult to grasp all the metabolic functions of this compound. It is likely there are also functions that research has not yet discovered; however this review will analyze the current knowledge of MSM.   

May Be an Anti-Inflammatory

MSM has shown to regulate the production of a protein complex called NF-κB, which controls the synthesis of DNA and proinflammatory molecules, as well as impacting on the survival of cells.

At least in test-tube studies, MSM inhibits the transcription of NF-κB at the genomic level, while also preventing the degradation of the NF-κB inhibitor [1].

Through suppression of NF-κB, MSM can also reduce the activity of nitric oxide and COX enzymes, which the body uses to create inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins [2]. Subsequently, due to the reduction in proinflammatory molecules and vasodilating agents, there is a decreased recruitment of immune cells to sites of local inflammation – thus being anti-inflammatory.

May Be an Anti-Oxidant

Through the same mechanism as MSM’s effect on inflammation, its ability to reduce NF-κB activity can also directly lower the expression of enzymes involved in oxidation and cell damage, such as reactive oxygen species.

Studies show that consuming MSM, at least prior to endurance exercise, results in an increase in total antioxidant capacity [3]. This could mean it can protect against cell damage and boost longevity.

Lab studies suggest that MSM does not neutralize these reactive oxygen species once they are produced, but instead focuses on suppressing their production in the first place – specifically for superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hypochlorous acid [4].

An additional benefit of MSM is that it is able to restore the glutathione levels in people that have deficiencies. Glutathione is known to be a potent antioxidant that can minimize oxidative stress and the downstream negative effects thought to be associated with oxidative stress [5].

May Decrease Joint Pain

As mentioned previously, a number of lab studies suggest that MSM exerts an anti-inflammatory effect through a reduction in pro-inflammatory molecules.

This has been observed in arthritic animal models, as evidenced by a reduction in proinflammatory cytokines within mice [6].

Subsequently, this can benefit joint health as it will inhibit the natural breakdown of cartilage – a flexible tissue that protects the ends of your bones in joints [7].

This is very important seen as cartilage tissue has a poor internal ability to send for defense mechanisms and immune responses to stop the attack from pro-inflammatory molecules.

Recent humans trials confirm that MSM is effective in reducing pain, as indicated by the use of various pain scales, with noted improvements in the stiffness and swelling of joints [8] [9].

Due to this, MSM has demonstrated in other studies to improve overall physical function in humans, measured through the use of subjective joint flexion measurements [10].

Additionally, a further potential benefit of MSM on joint health is that it might enhance the effectiveness of other common supplements used to treat joint conditions such as glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, and boswellic acid [11]. More data is needed to confirm this link.

Immune Modulation

The immune system is a specialized network of tissues, cells and organs that protects your body against illness and disease.

As immune health is closely linked to anti-inflammatory and antioxidative activity, MSM may be effective for boosting immunity.

In fact, MSM has been even been mentioned to “modulate the immune response through the crosstalk of inflammation and oxidative stress at the transcriptional and subcellular level” [12].

In particular, MSM’s ability to increase glutathione levels should likely have a large impact on immune health, as adequate levels of glutathione has repeatedly shown to be crucial for the overall health and function of the immune system [13].

Cancer

A newer category of MSM research is assessing its potential anti-cancer effect.

Researchers speculate that the metabolic functions of MSM may serve immune modulatory effects related to natural cell cycles that could impact upon cancer growth.

So far, lab studies indicate that MSM can initiate the controlled programming of cell death in gastrointestinal, hepatic, and colon cancer cells [14].

MSM appears to be cytotoxic to cancer cells by interfering with certain the cell cycles that would typically lead to cell duplication – known as “cell cycle arrest”.

This ultimately prevents the spread of cancer cells, known as metastasis [15].

Lab studies also suggest that MSM has the ability to stimulate physical and biochemical changes to cells so that they more closely resemble non-cancerous cells [16].

It is likely for one or more of these mechanistic reasons that animals injected with MSM report fewer tumors, and smaller tumor size, compared to those who did not receive treatment [17], and why one human trial associates MSM use with a decreased risk of lung and colorectal cancer [18].

Safety and Side Effects

MSM appears to be well-tolerated and safe, with a number of toxicity studies having been conducted in an array of animals.

However, based on information from individuals who have used MSM, some people may experience mild reactions if they are sensitive, such as stomach issues like nausea, bloating and diarrhea.

Other reports indicate that mild skin and eye irritation have been observed when MSM is applied topically.

It is also advised to avoid use of MSM alongside alcohol as other sulfur-containing substances may cause adverse reactions, although this is yet to be studied.

Nonetheless, the Food and Drug Administration consider MSM to be safe at dosages under 4845.6mg per day [19].

Conclusion

MSM is a naturally occurring compound in humans that is now a popular dietary supplement.

This substance is thought to heavily influence inflammatory and oxidative responses, and therefore has potential roles for improving joint and immune health, as well as inhibiting the formation of cancer cells.

MSM has been shown to be a safe compound to consume, with side effects only noted in susceptible and sensitive individuals.

Shaun Ward MSc BSc SENr Anutr
Shaun Ward MSc BSc SENr Anutr
Staff Writer & Fact Checker at DietProbe
Shaun is a registered nutritionist, and sport and exercise nutritionist, with experience in coaching professional endurance and strength athletes.
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This article has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified nutritionist, and only uses information from credible academic sources.